Why Is Violence Forbidden?
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
25 March 2007
I’m pretty sure I’ve told this story before, but I tell it again because it is such a great story. It is originally told by Jim Wallis in his book God’s Politics.
He tells of being in South Africa in the 1980’s during apartheid, where he was attending services in the cathedral led by Anglican bishop and Nobel prize winner Desmond Tutu. In the middle of Tutu’s sermon, armed security police broke into the church and surrounded the congregation. Tutu had been arrested just a few weeks before. The crowd was terrified.
Tutu looked at the armed men with determination and his warm smile. He acknowledged that they were powerful, but claimed that he served a higher power and that God would not be mocked. Then Tutu proclaimed, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”
Wallis writes that the congregation was electrified and that they stood, began to sing praise to God, and then started dancing. They danced out the front door. The security police didn’t know what to do, so they backed out of the way and the worshippers danced in the streets.
My friends, we have lived in amazing times when God’s vision for the world has come closer to reality. Just over sixty years ago Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated that one of the world’s most powerful militaries and imperial regimes could be humbled by a mass, nonviolent movement. The American civil rights movement used peaceful methods to end centuries of legalized discrimination. The Philippine dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos was ended by a non-violent people’s uprising. In 1989 we watched the Soviet empire collapse while only one revolution, that in Romania, succumbed to violence. South Africa avoided a race war, ended apartheid, elected Nelson Mandela president, and held a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that is a model for a new kind of politics. The dictatorships in Serbia and the Ukraine were ended with popular uprisings.
The twentieth century was the most violent in world history, but it was also the birth of a new era as nonviolent action was successful again and again on the world stage.
Of course it is not always successful as is evidenced by the Tiananmen Square massacre in China or the on-going imprisonment of Aung San Su Kyi in Burma.
But, then, success is not the issue. Though I think that nonviolence has demonstrated success, whether or not it is practical is really not the issue for a Christian. For a Christian such matters are simply determined by what it means to be a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. How do we follow, imitate, and participate in the way of God as revealed in Jesus and embodied in the Holy Spirit-empowered church?
Paul makes this abundantly clear in our text from Philippians. Let me read it to you again. This time I want you to listen for how Paul is primarily concerned with being like Christ.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
While we are on this text, let me offer a tangent that has nothing to do with today’s topic but is relevant for other issues. When Paul says “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish,” the word translated rubbish is the Greek word skubala which my Oklahoma Baptist University Greek professor taught me is a Greek cuss word and would most appropriately be translated into English as the common cuss word that begins with an s and ends with a t but that translators generally aren’t courageous enough to do it.
That tangent aside, this passage is an exuberant, joyful discussion of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Paul sets aside his own individual accomplishments before he was a Christian and focuses on Christ. Nothing else ultimately matters except following the example of Jesus in his death and resurrection. This is the goal, to live the heavenly call of God.
Paul reminds us that the primary issue for us Christians is whether we are faithful to God.
And nowhere do we more often fall short as a people than on the issue of violence. At the beginning of this series I preached on the meaning of the cross and how the cross was itself a violent act that merited no purpose or justification. It was the result of a life lived according to the way of God, confronting the powers-that-be. Jesus called on us to carry the cross, which meant that we too are to live a life according to the way of God, confronting the powers.
However, we cannot confront the evil and violence of this world and this world’s powers with violence ourselves. To do so is to participate in the very evil we are trying to destroy. Think about the Ring of Power in the Lord of the Rings. Even the good people cannot use it, because if they do, then they will ultimately help the cause of evil.
I want to give you three of the many reasons that violence is forbidden in the way of God.
1) To resort to violence to solve our problems means that we believe violence to be a necessary part of the creation. The Judeo-Christian creation myth claims that in God’s original vision for creation, there is peace and harmony. Creation is very good. Violence only comes later to spoil the creation.
According to our story, violence is a result of a fallen creation. This is substantially different from the stories of the other peoples of the Ancient Near East. For example, in the Sumerian creation myth that predates the Hebrew story, there is a water dragon named Tiamat who represents the forces of chaos. The warrior God Marduk battles and slays Tiamat. Marduk cuts Tiamat’s body open and then uses the parts of her body to create the world.
Ancient creation stories are more often like the story of Tiamat and Marduk, but not ours. The true point of our story, the theologically valuable conclusion to draw, is that order and fullness are central to what the creation should be. Not violence.
2) The second reason violence is forbidden is because when we resort to violence we claim that violence is necessary for creation to be redeemed. When we resort to violence we blaspheme Jesus. Why? Because the New Testament is quite clear that Jesus’ death once and for all, finally and ultimately, exposed the evil of this world and provided the opportunity for redemption. When we resort to violence, we claim that Jesus’ death was not efficacious for the salvation of the world but that there is something we have to do in order to try and redeem creation.
But as we have seen, there is nothing that we can do, we are all sinners who equally stand in need of the grace of God.
3) This brings me to the third reason violence is forbidden. God is sovereign. Not us. When we resort to violence, we claim sovereignty over others. We set ourselves up as an idol in the place where only God reigns.
In applicable terms, what then does this mean for the average Christian?
As you know, the theological position I’m advocating is a minority position in Christianity, though it is growing. You may be aware of debates between pacifists and Just War theorists. Just War theory is the majority theological position, but I don’t think most Christians understand that theory.
Just War theory has a clearly defined set of eight criteria that any military conflict must meet. Though every war has people who claim it is justified, probably 99% of all military conflicts fail the Just War test. So if Christians honestly followed even this theory, then we’d have far fewer wars and far less violence.
The other important thing to remember about Just War theory, is that it acknowledges that war is a sin. It just thinks there might be a narrow range in which this sin becomes necessary. According to Just War theory a triumphant nation must always do penance for the sin of war and must never engage in proud boasting of its victories. We fail miserably at meeting this condition.
Christians only have two theories on how to respond to violence – pacifism and just war. And the truth is that 99% of the time both theories agree. I would argue that in recent history, only in confronting Nazi Germany has the church found itself in that 1% where there might legitimately be debate.
The other thing that people forget is that both theories say that Christians should be doing everything they can to prevent conflict and create genuine peace before conflict arises. Because this aspect has long been ignored, in recent years some theorists have developed a position they call Just Peacemaking. Just Peacemaking advocates the positive, preventative steps that Christians ought to be taking to limit the causes which create war and violence. If Christians had followed the principles of Just Peacemaking, then the Nazis would have never come to power in Germany, so that one situation we might legitimately debate would have never arisen.
When discussing these issues, people like to throw out lots of what-ifs, lots of theoretical situations to see how you might respond. The truth is that no matter what position you take on the ethics of violence, you must encounter these what-ifs.
Among peacemakers there is debate about the role of the police or about military forces acting in a police capacity. This is different from offensive military action. I believe that a society needs some sort of policing function. But police should be trained to prevent violence and if they must use physical force, I believe it should generally be limited to non-lethal force.
Then there is the question of self-defense. I believe individuals do have the right to defend themselves. If someone hits me, I will hit back. But in such a situation one should be motivated merely by the goal of defending oneself or the innocent in harm and never motivated by the desire to inflict harm upon another human being.
But I think these sorts of what-ifs are less relevant than the far larger question of what we are doing to prevent situations of violence from arising in the first place. Not just we as individuals, but we as a society.
Currently the world seems to be at a loss for how to respond to the genocide in Darfur. Everything we’ve tried so far seems to have failed. The sad thing is that we didn’t pay any attention to this region until the genocide had been underway for some time. This conflict arose because of deteriorating economic conditions. As resources and farm land became more scarce, the population began to fight for what remained. Why, suddenly, was there less farm land than there had been for centuries? Because the Sahara desert is expanding. The Sahara desert is expanding because the globe is warming. Could it be that our inability to find a solution to the current genocide is really a result of our lack of courage, foresight, and imagination to deal with global climate change a generation ago?
We here cannot solve those problems on our own. That’s why it is incumbent upon us to build community. To build community among ourselves and then to reach out and build community with others around us. Only through a collective body of Christ can God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
We want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. Then we should “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” And it begins right here with the way we treat each other. Friends, I bless you, because simply by being here today, you have helped to change the world. And I invite you to discipleship by taking the rest of this time of worship to consider how you can help to create justice and peacemaking community beyond this sacred time and place.